Glynna's question-- Romance stories: Two Journeys! How can that work?

Glynna asked:
Do you have any tips you could share today on how to best weave the hero's and heroine's journey together in a romance novel? Most books/articles are about the protagonist's journey--singular--and don't address how to most effectively interweave the journeys of TWO leading characters. How to balance and develop them so that they complement each other to make the overall story stronger. Thank you! - 

Glynna, great question. First, I'm going to give you the easy way, which won't fit all stories, especially big epic emotional ones.
1. So the easy way-- not so easy to execute, of course!-- is to think of the COUPLE having a journey to each other. So think about where the couple starts out, and where they'll end up.
For example, my Nat/Matt (Natasha and Matthew) as a couple start out as "frenemies"-- kind of friendly enemies... not really enemies, but two people who are within the same extended family and have had to be polite to each other for years to maintain family peace but have never really gotten along.
They will end up as "allies"-- realizing that they have always both been kind of outsiders in that family unit, and that they have much more in common than different. They even realize the differences make them more, not less, compatible, because as a couple, they are stronger for having different strengths.
So the couple moves from "opposition to alliance."
They each have their own journey, of course, but the -structural- journey, the one that organizes the plot, might be more about the couple as a unit.

2. Another relatively easy way to have two main characters with intersecting journeys might be to determine which of the two has the farthest to travel to get to the end (which in a romance novel, I think, is "being able to give and accept love freely").

That is, they don’t both have to have journeys of the same level of complexity. One might have a longer, harder road. Which? Which has the most trouble giving and/or accepting love?

Example: While Ken escaped their small town and joined the army, Mary stayed home and has spent the last twenty years trying to overcome the obstacles a few early mistakes created for her (early disastrous marriage, dropping out of school to care for a baby, getting enmeshed in an enabling relationship with her addict mother). In my mind, her life journey so far is from “enmeshment to freedom”. But when the book opens, that journey is already partly underway—her child is grown, the marriage is long over, her mother is dead. Her journey in the book is actually shorter— from distrusting her judgment to trusting herself again.
Ken, however, has a longer journey. He escaped the small town, but that meant giving up every bit of intimacy and family he’d had. The army provided another support system, but also plunged him into the agony of war and the loss of friends. And now he’s retiring from the military and has nothing but a pension and a few battle-scars to show for the last two decades. His journey is from alienation to affiliation, and it’s going to be a longer, harder one, because he’s starting from so far back.

Now in this case, I’d make Ken’s journey the structural one, as he has farther to go. So I would make it mostly in his point of view, and have the first scene “his”—he arrives back in town, and he’s got nowhere to go—Dad is dead, Mom’s moved to a retirement village in Florida, his brothers have scattered—but to the house of his old girlfriend Mary.
She’s got her own journey, of course, but she just doesn’t have that much to overcome. She’s got friends, she’s got her daughter, she’s got a job, and she just has to learn to trust herself.
In a story where one journey is the primary one, consider having Lesser-Journey Partner learn/grow through helping (or hindering!) Difficult One on the longer journey.  Mary, for instance, can learn to stop castigating herself for those early mistakes by telling Ken to ease up on his guilt about the past.

3. If, however, you want sturm und drang, a big emotional story with drama and intensity on every page, you might go for them both having long, complex journeys. That results in the sort of “big” book where it’s really not clear how on earth these two people are ever going to be able to end up together. I don’t think I’ve ever written a book that epic, though I love to read them. But of course I have a couple ideas!
First, it might be less difficult if they are connected early by the external plot. You know, if they’re both trying to find the mole in the agency before all their foreign “assets” are revealed and killed, they’re going to have to stay together and sort of get along even if they’re both full of conflict. After all, national security is at stake! So if they’re both going to have long hard internal journeys, see if you can make the external journey more of a joint project where they really have to collaborate.

Second, while you don’t have to give them the same journey, you might see if they can be of the same “hue” or “tone.” If her journey is “distrust to trust,” maybe his can be “independence to inter-dependence.” If you think about it, the one is sort of an echo of another. An independent man will need to trust himself entirely but not really other people. She might need to be self-sufficient because she can’t bring herself to trust anyone else. Similar steps but perhaps a different starting place.

Third, keep in mind that the “genre journey” for a romance is towards “being able to give and accept love freely.” (That’s my assertion, anyway.) I like to figure out if which partner needs to learn which of those. The independent guy might be able to give pretty well, but accepting love will be hard for him because it seems like a sign of weakness. The untrusting lady might be able to accept somewhat, but she’ll be very wary of giving love freely because she thinks the gift might be exploited. So while they’re both going to be moving towards love, the paths they have to tread to get there will be a little different, and notice—her growing to be able to GIVE love will mean he has to grow to be able to ACCEPT that love.

Anyway, what’s most important, I think, is that the events of the external plot push them down their journey roads. The external plot has to keep them together, even when their internal issues might otherwise drive them apart. So see if each of the major external turning points can have an effect on each of their journeys, and also bring them into alliance and/or conflict as a couple.

Long answer, Glynna! Great question! What do you see as your couple’s big challenge in your story?


  1. Thank you for such a detailed response, Alicia! This is very helpful! Lots of things to think about. And thank you for joining us in Seekerville today!


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